Month to Month
Notes: This is an Ezra & Inez story and Buck doesnt come off at his best. My apologies to Buck fans. Maudes not looking too good, either, really. Anyway, Ive seen all the Old West episodes on tape and thought Id take a stab at the Old West setting.
This story is set after the series and references are made to many episodes.
Many thanks to Lacy for looking this over and correcting some grammar mistakes and for a her suggestions.
Hope you enjoy.
Ezra smiled widely as he made his way quietly down the hall toward his room, counting the money hed just won from a couple of traveling salesmen who had stopped in Four Corners two days ago. Twice he had engaged them in games of chance, and twice now he had relieved them of significant amounts of money. His smile slipped as he caught the sounds of someone being sick from Inez Recillos room. The saloon manager had been looking quite pale for a couple of days, and Ezra suspected this was not the first time the lovely Mexican lady had been ill during the night and early mornings.
He tapped lightly on the door to her room.
Miss Recillos? he called just loudly enough to be heard inside the room. Are you all right, my dear?
A moments pause followed his question but, finally, a soft and weary voice answered from within.
I will be fine, Senor Standish, Inez assured him quietly. Thank you for asking.
Ezra paused and wondered if he should take her at her word. In the almost three years he had known her, Inez had been quite healthy. Regularly--he knew the symptoms from working closely with his own mother--Inez would have one day every month in which she would be pale and somewhat ill. However, the businesswoman in her refused to give in and she had yet to miss work because of it. All-in-all, Ezra had long ago realized, Inez was much more even-tempered than his mother or any of Maudes blood relations. Perhaps even-tempered was not quite the right description, Ezra amended to himself with a smile, but her temperament didnt seem affected by any mysterious feminine biological conditions.
If you should need anything, Ezra told her, please dont hesitate to ask.
Thank you, Inez repeated, and Ezra continued on to his room.
He walked away from the door with a muttered, Just say the word, and Ill get Buck right on it.
Two mornings later he again heard the unmistakable sound of Inez being sick. Again he knocked and inquired as to her health and again she sent him on his way. Later that day as the seven gathered in the saloon, Ezra noted two things.
Buck was flirting with Inez again. Once that wouldnt have been unusual or noteworthy, but as of a couple of months before, Ezra realized, Buck had ceased his flirtations with the young woman. Ezra also noticed Inez rejection of his renewed flirtations was sharper than ever before. When Buck tried again to woo her upon her return to their table, Ezra caught the unmistakable flash of hurt and disappointment in Inezs paler than normal face.
Oh, come on, now, Inez, Buck teased, snaking an arm out to pat her hand as she set their drinks on the table. We could enjoy ourselves tonight. Ezrad watch the bar for you, wouldnt you, buddy? Inez jerked her hand sharply from Bucks grip and scowled at him.
Mr. Wilmington, Ezra said, please leave Miss Recillos alone. She was up late last night helping me with a rather tedious chore, and I believe she had to be up again early this morning for her own tasks.
Inez smiled at the sharp-dressed gambler as Buck turned his attention briefly to his fellow lawman. She took the opportunity to slip away from the men and attend to chores behind the bar.
Cant think of anything that would be tedious with Inez involved, Buck said. He watched the lady with a wide smile on his face.
Thats because your mind only thinks of one thing, JD said.
Talk drifted to other topics quickly enough, but Ezra found himself watching Inez for the rest of their time together. When the others drifted off to other tasks for the afternoon, Ezra sought out Inez and offered to stock the shelves and watch the light crowd so she could go upstairs for a rest. To his surprise, Inez accepted the offer. When she returned later that afternoon in time for the evening rush of customers, she looked decidedly better and Ezra was pleased with himself, although he found himself watching her closely for the rest of the evening and over the next few days.
As he trotted down the stairs early one afternoon the following week, he was surprised to see Inez recently hired bartender alone in the main room. The crowd was small and easily managed by one man so Ezra wasnt concerned, but he was curious. He had planned to have a late meal but he could smell no indication of cooking from the saloons kitchen. With a frown, Ezra walked into the kitchen, and finding no one, continued out the back door. He saw no one, but he heard someone crying softly. Stepping out and looking around, he finally spotted Inez seated against the building, almost completely hidden by a large bush.
Ezra approached her slowly and noted the way one hand lay across her stomach while the other hid her eyes.
Miss Recillos? Ezra asked. He knelt before her and handed her his handkerchief. She accepted with a small smile and tried to stem the flow of her tears. Whatever is the problem, my dear?
Nothing you can help with, Inez said quietly through her tears.
Ezra watched her sad eyes and reached out to gently take her hand.
Inez? he began gently. Are you ... in a family way?
Fresh tears flowed at his question and Inez could only nod.
And could I hazard a guess that Mr. Wilmington is the father?
Again Inez nodded, unable to speak. Ezra sat back on his heels and considered the woman before him. He glanced around and saw no one in the street or alleyways around them but wondered how long that would last. He rose and put out his other hand to Inez.
Let us take this delicate discussion to another location, he suggested, where we are less likely to be overheard or observed.
Silently, Inez accepted his help to rise, and his arm around her, as they took the back stairs up to her room. Once she was seated on her bed and Ezra had pulled a chair over to sit in front of her, he again took her hands.
Have you told Buck? he asked.
Inez shook her head. I remember how he reacted when Lucy tried to tell him she was having his child. I couldnt bear that.
Perhaps he feels differently about you than he did about Miss Lucy, Ezra suggested.
I dont think so. Even if he did, I do not think I would want to marry Buck. I do not think he would be interested. Even if he were, I do not wish to be one of many. She sighed heavily and looked away. And yet, I do not want to burden my child all its life as a bastard.
I quite understand, Ezra whispered. They fell into an awkward silence until Ezra voiced another option. There are ... other ways to deal with this, he ventured.
Inez looked at him blankly for a moment then recoiled. Madre de Dios, she whispered, shocked. No, Senor Standish. I could never. I ... Never, I could never murder my child for something I did.
He reached out to her with a gentle smile. Its okay, Ezra said, moving to sit beside her on the bed. I just wanted to make sure you knew of the option. He held her close and rubbed her back softly. Im sorry. Im sorry. I didnt mean to upset you.
How did you know it was Senior Wilmington? Inez finally asked in a whisper.
When he talked to you the other day, I realized it was the first time he had approached you in that manner in a while. I thought he had perhaps given up his pursuit, but I deduce now that he succeeded. I am somewhat surprised he has not let everyone know of his good fortune.
I asked him to please not tell, Inez admitted. She kept her face hidden against Ezras jacket. I gave in about four months ago. I heard he had proposed to the Governors assistant. I thought perhaps he had changed.
She grew quiet, but Ezra asked no questions, and eventually, she continued. But after a few days, he stopped paying attention to me and the next thing I knew he was coming out of Miss Katies room. He came to see me again, but I said no. But, two months ago, I again gave in. The tears began again. It will not happen again, she insisted, more to herself than to Ezra.
Oh, Senor Standish? What am I to do? I do not want to leave, but I do not wish the town to call my child names. To think ill of him or her because of me.
Now, Inez, Ezra replied. It wont be that bad. Well help. Buck will help.
No, Inez whispered. I will have to go away and either give the child up or stay away. Her tears soaked through his jacket and shirt and her body shook with sobs.
Shhh, Ezra soothed. Now, we can think of something. After several moments of silence, Inez tears slowed enough for her to speak.
I am waiting, she whispered, for this something.
What about your family? he asked.
I cannot go back to that town, and if I could, I would not embarrass my mother with this.
Would she harm you or the child? Ezra asked.
No, Inez said. I know she would help me if she could, but I will not do that to her, even if the Dons family would let me live there again.
Oh, yes, Ezra said, remembering the Mexican who tried to take Inez back to Mexico against her will. With the reprehensible man dead at Bucks hands, his family might harbor ill will toward Inez.
Perhaps there is another something? she whispered.
Ezra smiled and looked down at the top of her head. He gave her dark hair a small kiss then pulled away from her. Cradling her face, he wiped her tears with his thumbs and smiled rakishly.
We could marry, Ezra said.
Inezs eyes widened. What? she whispered.
I would be honored to give your child a name, he said.
But everyone will know the child is not yours, she said.
My dear, Ezra said, surely you know how easily people could be led to think we already are involved.
Inez looked down shyly. Senor Buck will know, she admitted. I cannot ask you to do this, Inez said. She looked at him in fear. Do you love me? she asked.
Ezra smiled sadly. My reasons are purely selfish in nature, he said. At her confused look he continued. I fully intend to own a saloon in this town and when I have purchased my business, I further intend to hire you. If you arent here to steal away, half the fun of being back in business will be lost.
I will not marry Buck, even if he wanted to, because I know he would never be faithful. How can I ask this of you? What if you find a woman you really want to marry?
It is just as likely you will find a young man to whom you would rather be wed, Ezra said. We will cross that bridge when it we come to it, Ezra continued. Inez was unconvinced. There may come a time when I want to move on instead of going into business here. There are many ways for me to disappear that will not leave you disgraced. Whatever happens, you will not be left in distress. I promise you that.
Senor Buck will know the child is his, Inez repeated.
Why? Ezra asked. He assumes women are like him. Is there any reason for him to think he was your only paramour?
Inez looked down again. Yes. She blushed and Ezra felt his own face heat up.
Aw, well, I see. That doesnt mean you havent been with others since then, Ezra pointed out. We do inhabit the same building. There is no reason for anyone to find it odd that we would find comfort in one anothers arms.
I dont know, Inez said.
If you would rather leave, I understand, Ezra said. If you would prefer to raise the child on your own, I will understand. He stood to leave and kissed the back of her hand. If you decide to accept my offer, I will do my best to care for you and the child as long as you want me to. I leave the decision in your hands. He bowed slightly to her and left the room.
Thirty minutes later, Ezra heard a soft knock on his door. Without speaking, he opened it to find Inez standing there, eyes still red from her tears.
I would like to take you up on your offer of marriage, Senor Standish, she whispered. She looked down. I thank you for this, for my child.
Ezra stepped out into the hall and pulled her into an embrace. Why dont you get a little rest, and when you have recovered somewhat from the days emotions, we will go to Josiah and be married.
Two hours later, Inez and Ezra walked solemnly to the church where Josiah could be heard pounding away inside. Inez was unusually subdued as Ezra led her to Josiahs workstation near the front of the church.
Mr. Sanchez, Ezra called, a moment of your professional time, please.
Ezra, Miss Inez, Josiah greeted the two. He set down his hammer and waited for one of his visitors to explain their business. What can I do for you this fine day? he finally prompted.
You can make the day finer still by uniting us in matrimony, Ezra announced. He put an arm gently around Inez shoulder. He felt her posture straighten and her head rise. A sideways glance revealed the young woman to have the more customary glint of challenge in her eyes.
You want to get married? Josiah asked, astonished at this turn of events. Ezra nodded. To each other?
Ezra frowned at the tone coming from the preacher. I believe we have informed you of that. We would appreciate your assistance in this matter.
Josiah stared at them a moment longer, then looked around. This isnt a joke, is it? Is Buck or JD hiding somewhere?
Ezras mouth morphed into a firm, hard line and his eyes flashed. If you have no desire to help us with our request, he said, a simple, No would suffice. Ezra started to leave, but Josiahs apologetic tone stopped him.
Ezra, Miss Inez, Josiah said. I have no authority to marry anyone anymore. You need to either wait for the judge or head over to Eagle Bend. They got a preacher.
Ezra frowned then looked at his wife-to-be. Very well, he said. Inez, we shall get an early start tomorrow morning and make our way to Eagle Bend.
Dont you want us to come with you? Josiah asked. Youll need witnesses.
We will find someone there, Ezra said. We dont want a fuss. Ezra began to lead Inez away before turning back to Josiah. I trust you will keep this in confidence until we return? Josiah nodded dumbly as he watched the couple go.
Ezra and Inez were up early the next morning and out of town in the rented buggy almost before Vin was up and about. As it was, Vin caught sight of the buggy heading out into the sun as he crawled from the bed in his wagon. He watched as the buggy drove off, then made his way to Chris who was just coming out of the boarding house.
Whos in the buggy? Chris asked.
Ezra and Inez, Vin replied. Where they headed?
Dont know., Chris said. Ezra told me last night he had an errand to run this morning. Hed let me know more when he returned tomorrow.
The two men shrugged and went inside for breakfast.
The following afternoon, Inez and Ezra returned from their trip and settled back into the saloon. As they had discussed on their return from Eagle Bend, Inez moved her things into Ezras room. The first time she sat on the featherbed, her face lit with delight, and Ezra smiled at the pleasure in her face.
You do have a taste for fine things, Ezra said and Inez couldnt help a nervous giggle. She stood again, blushing.
I cannot take your bed from you, she said. I will sleep in another room.
I believe you will be more in need of a comfortable bed than I will over the next few months, Inez. You are welcome to the bed. I can stay in your old room when it is not in use.
And when it is?
Then I will stay up at night and take my rest in the day.
That does not seem fair, Inez said. I cannot keep you from what is yours, she said, looking away nervously. We can share...
Ezra moved closer to his wife of less than one day and turned her to face him. You are not mine, Ezra said, if you do not want to be. I promise I will not touch you unless you want me to. I told you that yesterday. I still mean it today.
Inez nodded, unable to speak.
Now, Ezra said. Why dont you get some rest?
No, Senor Standish, I need to go down and work.
Together they went downstairs. Inez headed immediately to the kitchen to see what needed to be done yet that afternoon. Ezra found the other six men seated at a table, watching him closely. Ezra approached them and looked first to Josiah.
Josiah, Ezra began.
I aint said a word, Josiah proclaimed. They are mighty curious, though, and have come up with some interesting ideas.
Ezra nodded then went to speak with Inez when she came out of the kitchen. With a sigh, Inez put down her towel and joined Ezra to stand before the remaining six peacekeepers.
Gentlemen, Ezra began. I believe congratulations are in order. Inez and I were married this morning in Eagle Bend.
Sudden, shocked silence greeted his announcement, and Inez took an involuntary step back before Ezras sure grip on her hand tightened and held her in place.
Congratulations, Chris finally said to the couple. I wish you the best. He shared a look with Vin who returned it with a gentle shrug of his shoulder.
Yeah, Ezra, Vin said. Congratulations. You got yourself a good woman there.
The others quickly recovered and offered their congratulations.
Inez, darling, Buck said, standing. I believe its customary for the bride to kiss the grooms friends.
Mr. Wilmington, Ezra said with a cold smile, I would ask you not to touch my wife, or bother her with your crass attempts at seduction now or in the future.
Buck grinned at the Southerner but halted his approach toward Inez who gave him her own barely concealed contemptuous look. Buck raised his hands in surrender and returned to his seat.
Thank you, Senors, Inez finally said quietly. I have work to do, she said as she backed away from the group of men. Ezra held her in place for a moment and gently kissed her cheek.
Ill be along in a moment to help, he whispered before letting her leave. Inez gave him a small, disbelieving smile and left.
Ezra took a seat at the table with his friends and prepared himself for the barrage of questions.
Kind of sudden, werent it? Nathan finally asked. I didnt even know the two of you were seeing each other.
It was a bit sudden, but we have been quietly courting for a couple of months now, Ezra said. It seemed the right time.
Chris chewed on his smoke and watched Inez and Ezra quietly. Talk turned quickly to other topics and before long the men were going their separate ways leaving only Chris and Ezra at the table. When Inez stepped into the back room and Chris and Ezra were left alone at the table, Chris finally spoke.
She pregnant? Chris asked.
Ezra looked appraisingly at the leader of their band of peacekeepers and decided there was little point in denying the truth. He nodded.
She was contemplating leaving our fair city, Ezra said. She had no desire to raise the child as a bastard with all its attending scorn.
Buck? Chris finally asked.
You will understand if I find it prudent to say I dont know what you mean, Ezra said, standing. I believe I will assist my wife with her duties. If you will excuse me. Ezra touched the brim of his hat and left for the back room to help Inez. Chris last question stopped him.
You love her?
Ezras familiar grin returned at that question. I doubt I would recognize the emotion if I did feel it, Mr. Larabee, he said. No, my reasons were purely mercenary. When I purchase my new saloon, I wont have to hire Inez to help run it.
Once Mary Travis learned of the marriage, she and Mrs. Potter insisted on a reception for the new couple. Ezra and Inez graciously accepted the congratulations and best wishes of their friends and acquaintances from around town.
As April turned into May, Ezra was called upon to escort a prisoner to Riverton with Buck and JD. After depositing the prisoner at the jail, the three men made their way to the hotel and then the saloon. Ezra soon found himself ensconced in a card game while Buck and JD watched. Buck enjoyed the attentions of a couple of the saloon girls and watched a third devote her attention to Ezra.
Looks like Ezras got plans for the night, Buck said as he chose which of the girls he would spend the night with and she went off to get him a fresh drink.
JD watched as Ezra smiled at his fellow card players, collected his winnings and the group to join his friends at their table. The saloon girl whod been fawning over the winning gambler followed closely behind. As Ezra joined his friends, his self-appointed companion went to the bar to retrieve fresh drinks for the two of them.
Looks like you had a good night, JD said, nodding at the money Ezra was folding and placing in his vest pocket.
Looks like your nights going to get even better, Buck laughed as he watched the woman sway toward the bar.
Hes been married barely a month, Buck, JD said.
So? Buck said as his own companion slipped back onto his lap.
JD just looked from him to Ezra.
Hell, JD, Buck said. No woman expects her husband to keep that vow. Long as you come home to them, theyre happy. He nuzzled the womans neck and stood. Speaking of making someone happy, he said to her, why dont we go work on some mutual happiness? With a smile and a nod at JD and Ezra, Buck and his new friend walked off toward the stairs.
Ezra smiled at JD. Buck wont change, JD, Ezra said. Im not sure he can. He has let his body lead him in response to certain situations so often and for so long, Im not sure he can do anything differently.
What about you? JD asked as he spied the lady coming back toward them.
I have no intention of doing anything tonight but getting a good nights sleep, Ezra said. Inez has not slept well of late and coming here is actually giving me a chance to catch up on some much needed rest. JD opened his mouth as if to speak again, but Ezra cut him off. I believe I will turn in now. Will you stay or are you coming back to the hotel?
Ill come with you, JD said, standing as Ezra did. He watched as Ezra thanked the lady for his drink, downed it in one swallow, tipped her generously and led the way back to the hotel.
Once back in Four Corners the next evening, Ezra slipped into his room, knowing Inez was downstairs tending the saloon. He wanted to wash up before going downstairs to help. He also wanted to hide his winnings from Riverton. He was startled to hear the door open while he was tucking the cash into the corner of the wardrobes topmost shelf.
Inez came into the room and nearly collapsed. She didnt notice Ezra until he caught her before she fell to the floor.
Inez? he called, alarm evident in his voice. He guided her to the bed and covered her as she curled on her side. Inez? Ezra repeated. Should I get Nathan?
Inez weakly shook her head. No, she whispered. I just have a terrible headache. Im sorry. I was just so sick. I was afraid I would throw up in the saloon. She tried to take a deep breath and bit her lip against the pain. The sounds and the smells were just too much. She started to rise, but Ezra gently restrained her.
No, he said sternly. You stay here. Ill get Nathan and then help Miss Molly and Miss Katie with the crowd.
They wont like it, Inez said. They both have prospects for some extra money tonight.
Ill just have to compensate them for whatever they might have gotten. You do not need to be working in this state. You rest now. Nathan will be here soon. With a kiss to her hand, Ezra left the room quietly and quickly made his way to Nathans clinic. Back at the saloon, he watched the stairway anxiously for an hour, waiting for Nathan to reappear. When the black man came down the stairs, Ezra cornered him and dragged him into the relative quiet outside the kitchen door.
Whats wrong with her? Ezra asked.
Shes got a headache, Nathan said, tone sharp and biting. Its bad enough to make her sick to her stomach and the lights bothering her, too. She should be all right by tomorrow or the next day at the latest. She just needs quiet and dark and rest for now. I gave her something to help her sleep.
Shell be fine?
Should be. He frowned at Ezra and shook his head. She needs more rest for herself and the baby, Nathan said.
But, the baby is fine?
I think so, Nathan said. He shook off Ezras hand from his arm and put space between them. Ezra caught the frown on the dark mans face and sighed in frustration.
What have I done to offend your sensibilities now? Ezra asked.
Never mind, Nathan said. I guess I just understand now.
Why you married her. At least you did the honorable thing and didnt leave her to fend for herself. Ezra shook his head and looked away. He felt Nathans scrutiny. Just remember, what she needs most is some rest, Nathan went on.
Thank you for coming and helping, Ezra snapped. If you excuse me, I have customers to attend to. As he started for the door to go back inside, Ezra couldnt resist one last shot. When you decide to make a commitment to Raine, Mr. Jackson, Ezra whispered, I promise not to count the months until the birth of your first child.
The following afternoon as he wandered down the street behind the saloon toward the livery to check on his horse, Ezra noticed the recently abandoned building directly across the alley from the saloon. The structure had housed a laundry at one time, but the family had moved after just a few months. The building had also been a dress shop but its proximity to the saloon discouraged the few respectable customers Four Corners had to offer. Curious as to its contents, Ezra peered in the windows then tried the door. Finding the front door unlocked, he stepped into a small open room and then checked out the rooms that opened from it.
One door led to a small kitchen area while the other led to a large empty room that could easily become a bedroom and have plenty of room for a baby bed as well. Situated on a corner of the house, the room was farthest from the saloon. Above the main room was a small loft area. Climbing the ladder built into the back wall, Ezra cautiously peeked over the edge of the loft and was surprised to find it rather clean and spacious. A small window at the back offered some ventilation.
Ezra left the property and quickly made his way to the bank to learn what he could of the propertys status. Before long he learned the property belonged to the bank and could be purchased out-right for a disgustingly low amount. Mostly out of curiosity, Ezra haggled with the banker and was able to reduce the price further. Impulsively, he purchased the property.
Inez had been feeling better that morning, but Ezra had convinced her to remain in bed until the afternoon. She had slept until just before noon and by one oclock was restless to return to her work. She had come downstairs and shooed Ezra out of her kitchen by one-thirty and he had set off on his walk. At the time, he had wished Inez would have stayed in bed a few more hours, but now was glad she had left the room. He took out his hidden stash of money and counted out what he needed to give the bank. Within an hour he was the owner of a home. Now he just had to think of a way to break it to Inez.
The newlyweds had spent the first few weeks of their marriage on good terms. Ezra helped Inez out whenever and wherever he could. Despite initial efforts to stagger their sleep schedules, they shared a bed many nights although beyond soothing her after a nightmare or when the emotions of her condition overcame her, Ezra had not touched her. Ezra found himself comforted when he was able to quiet her tears and her fears. He had always liked Inez though he had been a bit miffed when shed agreed to work for Maude.
Now, the new homeowner approached the saloon and wondered what Inez would think of his impulsive purchase. He wasnt sure what to make of it himself. Hed rarely had a true house to stay in, much less consider home. As a child and as an adult, his life had been a continuous line of hotel rooms if he was lucky and cold, hard campsites if he wasnt.
The saloon was empty when Ezra entered and he found Inez alone in the kitchen, obviously weak and tired. He sighed as she studiously cleaned shot glasses and beer mugs. Lines etched across her face were just one indication she was still in a great deal of pain. Her slow, deliberate movements were so different from her normally smooth, quick and sure actions that Ezra was pained by them. He knocked softly on the door to announce his arrival and not startle her. She turned weary, red eyes toward him.
Inez, Ezra whispered, opening his arms. She stepped into his embrace and rested her head on his shoulder, blocking out the bright sunlight streaming in through the windows. You need to rest, Ezra admonished softly, his voice barely above a whisper.
I cannot, Inez replied. There is much work to do.
I can do it. Come now, off to bed with you. Maybe tomorrow the headache will be gone.
I hope so, Senor, Inez whispered. I grow tired of the pain.
Ezra let her rest against him a few moments longer. Just as he was about to lead her away, a booming voice rattled through the room and Inez gasped in pain.
Inez! Ezra! Bucks shout filled the room. Where are you? Got some news for you.
Ezra kissed Inezs temple then led her from the kitchen into the outer room where he hissed at Buck.
Lower your voice, you barbarian, Ezra snapped in a low voice. Inez is not feeling well. Leaving Buck, JD and Vin to stare shamefacedly at their departing figures, Ezra half-carried Inez up the stairs. Even as he settled her into the bed, he noticed he could still hear the voices drifting up from below. He had no idea how accustomed he had grown to the constant undercurrent of noise in his life.
Ezra stayed with Inez for a few moments until she shooed him out to keep an eye on the saloon for her. He smiled at her then made his way downstairs.
Whats wrong with Inez? Vin asked as Ezra approached the three men gathered at the bar.
She has a headache. It started yesterday and hasnt let up much.
Nathan been by? Vin asked.
Ezra nodded. He said she needed rest and quiet. She tried to come down and get a little work done but she should have stayed in bed. She should be better by tomorrow. He eyed Buck and JD. What do we have to celebrate?
JD and Caseys finally gonna tie the ole knot, Buck announced, voice rising with his news.
Buck, JD hissed, looking around. I aint really asked her yet.
Vin and Ezra smiled at their young compatriots unease.
When do you plan to request the ladys hand? Ezra asked.
Tonight. JD looked at Ezra sheepishly. I was wondering if you could give me some pointers, he said.
Hell, Buck interrupted so he nor JD saw the flicker of embarrassment that crossed Ezras face, I can give you all the pointers you need, son.
Buck, Ezras married. Your only proposal got turned down. I think Id like his advice. JD turned to the gambler. Well?
Well, Ezra began. It depends on the lady, and on whether she expects the question from you, and whether you have asked for permission from her parents or guardian.
Permission? JD repeated.
Yes, Ezra said. Since Casey is living with, and under the authority of her aunt, you should, to be proper, speak with Mrs. Wells first and seek permission to approach Casey with your intentions.
I gotta ask if I can ask?
It is proper, Ezra said.
JD frowned. With a sigh he put his hat on his head and turned to leave.
Hell, JD, Buck said. Casey can make up her own mind. Nettie already knows what you want to do.... his voice trailed off as he followed JD from the saloon.
No doubt JDs task would be easier if his self-appointed guardian were kept away, Ezra said.
If you mean someone should hog-tie Buck, I have to agree with you, Vin said. Guess its up to me. Chris is out at his shack. He paused to look up the stairs. Inez really all right? Ezra nodded. Vin returned the nod with a short one of his own and then headed off to run interference for JD.
Inez remained in bed the rest of the evening, and finally stirred early the following morning. As she tried to quietly ready for the day, she heard Ezra stir in the bed behind her.
Good morning, he greeted her when she looked his way. You look much better this morning. How are you feeling?
Much better, Inez admitted. Thank you for insisting I rest. I can get back to work today, however.
Ezra rose from the bed himself and came to stand behind her. He massaged her shoulders. I have some matters to attend to today. Are you sure you are all right?
Inez smiled at his thoughtfulness and nodded. Impulsively, Ezra kissed the top of her head and turned away to begin getting ready for the day himself.
Inez struggled to control the blush the crept up her cheeks at his impromptu kiss. They had discussed briefly on their wedding trip that they would have to show some affection in public if anyone was to believe they were married and the child was Ezras.
I daresay I will be less demonstrative in public than Buck or even what your people may consider proper, Ezra had said, however, I do hope you will be comfortable enough not to flinch away from any displays of affection I may direct your way.
Inez remembered promising she would not, and while it had originally taken a conscious effort on her part, she found she enjoyed the occasional kiss to the cheek Ezra offered her in the saloon, and the comforting arm about her shoulders or waist. His touch was gentle, not overbearing or stifling as so many other mens had seemed. Even Buck sometimes exerted more strength than she found comfortable although he probably never realized it. Even when he didnt touch her, his imposing stature could be more intimidating than he probably intended.
Ezra left the room for the bathhouse to complete his dressing routine for the day. She had to admire his fortitude on these nights when he slept beside her. He would keep to one side of the bed unless she began to cry or dream, and this morning was the first time he had even touched her in their room. She would often go to an empty room to change when they found themselves together on a morning or he would do as he did this morning and go to the bathhouse. As she brushed out her long dark hair, Inez wondered, not for the first time, what it would be like if he were not so disciplined.
The thought that he might not find her, or any woman, attractive had crossed her mind early in this month, but his reaction one morning as she had cried in his arms led her to believe he simply had more control than most of the men she had known or heard about She admired him and thanked God for that control because there were some mornings when she would have let him go wherever he wanted.
Had she or Buck as much control, perhaps Inez would not be in this position now. Buck had flirted and teased her one evening in mid-December when she had been feeling depressed. He had wanted to cheer her up and had succeeded. When he had stayed again until she closed the saloon a few nights later, she had let him dance with her and hold her close. It had felt good to be in his arms, to feel comforted and protected. And, Inez knew now, Buck was an accomplished lover who could make a body want what perhaps its owner would later regret. She had let herself be swept away by his talented lips and hands.
They had enjoyed one anothers company quite often through the end of the year but the new year found both of them busy. For several days, his duties and her work kept them apart and a few nights later she had seen him come out of Katies room. When she had heard Katie give words to the very feelings she had known, she had realized it was less to do with a special feeling between two people and more to do with physical knowledge and talent. She had been stung, and scared, because of the stories she had heard of terrible diseases, not to mention pregnancy.
Yet, when Buck had come back to her two months later, she had again succumbed to his talents, and now, here she was, pregnant and married to a man who was not the father of her child.
As pleasurable as she had found her experience with Buck those few nights, there was a greater comfort in Ezras simple, undemanding embrace. Even on those few occasions when she sensed he would have moved farther had she but given a hint of interest, there was great comfort in his willingness, and ability, to not ask more of her. When she had first considered his proposal, she was resigned to giving him all the rights and privileges required of a wife, but she realized now that she was no longer resigned to the fact, but looking forward to it instead.
Inez smiled shyly at herself in the mirror and felt much like the young girl she had been in Mexico before the Dons son had cast his eyes on her. She giggled and clamped a hand over her mouth as she remembered talking with her cousins about what it would be like to be grown and married and know the touch of a man. She remembered and felt again like that young, innocent child and relished the memory and feeling, even as she laid a hand on her stomach and thought of the child growing there.
For his part, Ezra took a cold bath that morning, as he had several mornings since moving in with Inez. He thought back to his recent trip with Buck and JD. Truth be told, he had originally planned to seek comfort with the young lady who had been his companion at the table that night in the saloon, but JDs innocent remark and Bucks jovial retort had cooled his ardor. He had looked at Buck and wondered if that was the reasoning the man had used to stay one more night in Mexico with Chris all those years ago. The question had been on the tip of his tongue, but something--nothing short of divine providence, Ezra believed--had kept the comment in check. So he had avoided a likely fight with Buck, and remained physically faithful to his wife.
Even as he had proposed to Inez, he never expected to enjoy her physical affection. As he had told Li Pong, he had yet to take advantage of a woman and he wouldnt start, even with someone who was technically his wife. He would find his comfort in other arms, but those arms would be outside of Four Corners. He would not subject Inez to possibly seeing her husband, if only in name, with someone else. He would just have to make sure future trips out of town wouldnt be in the company of Buck--or Nathan he suspected. He contemplated that thought again, however, and wasnt sure he wanted to be out of town if it meant leaving Buck in town with Inez.
Morning ritual completed, Ezra set about making his new purchase into a home for his wife and the child to come. He spoke with Mrs. Travis and Mrs. Potter and selected furnishings and decor he thought Inez would find appealing. For the next three weeks, he supervised the transformation of the building into a home with as many comforts as he could afford.
Inez had wandered out the back door of the saloon one afternoon shortly after Ezras project began to find him holding the door of the building while Josiah and Nathan carried a plank inside.
Ezra? Inez had called from the bottom step of the saloon door.
Ezra had slammed the door closed immediately, almost hitting Josiahs back as the preacher hurried inside.
What is going on? she asked.
Merely doing a good deed, Inez, Ezra said, walking quickly toward her.
What is going on over there? Is someone opening another business?
Im not sure what the ultimate use of the building will be, Ezra said. Josiah and Nathan were simply lending a hand. Ill ask Josiah sometime. Ezra gently moved Inez back toward the saloon. She glanced at him, puzzled by his sudden desire to leave his friends. All that menial labor has built up quite a thirst, he said. Could I interest you in a drink, my dear?
From that moment on, Inez found herself occupied by at least one, and sometimes two, of Ezras friends and she was too busy to make her way to the building during the day. One morning, however, she found herself walking back from the store and decided to look inside. No one was about and she tried the door, finding it unlocked. She was tempted to enter, but contented herself with peeking through the windows and smiled at what she glimpsed inside. Someone had worked very hard, she knew, turning this deserted structure into a home. Rugs softened the floor and comfortable furniture waited for family and guests. A kitchen with everything a woman could want, cabinets, a sink, a wonderful new cook stove. She admired, too, the colors that brought to mind the adobe homes of her childhood.
She turned when she heard someone coming through the small gate and up the short walk. Looking around, her first thought was to hide until she recognized Ezra and Josiah.
Inez, Josiah said, startled to see her.
Ezras head snapped up at the name and he smiled, surprise evident on his face.
My dear, he said. What brings you here?
There has been so much going on. I just wanted to see what has been done.
What do you think?
I think some family is going to be very happy. Who is it for? Ezra and Josiah looked at one another.
Did you know JD has proposed to Casey? Ezra asked.
Yes, Inez said. Are they going to live here? Casey must be pleased. She is a sweet child, Inez continued. I look forward to having her close.
Yes, well, Ezra said as Inez continued to look around the porch and into the house. I think wed better get back to the saloon and see what needs to be done before tonight. He tipped his hat at Josiah and guided Inez across the street to the saloon.
Inez looked back at the house before going into the saloon. Once inside, Ezra studied her as they began their synchronized moves around the kitchen and bar. After just a few days, the two had fallen into a comfortable working routine.
Do you really like it? Ezra asked when they had a quiet moment. The house? he clarified when she looked at him.
Its a lovely home. Casey will be happy.
Would you be happy there?
I suppose, but it would be two places to keep clean instead of one.
Ezra nodded at her comment and let the matter drop. He left after a while to attend to business at the jail with Chris and the others. When he returned several hours later as night was falling and the crowd was getting rowdier in the saloon, he found Inez in the kitchen, leaning wearily against the wall.
Inez? Ezra asked as he made his way quickly to her side. She was silent and simply turned into his arms and let him hold her. Another headache? he asked. She nodded once. After a few moments of rubbing gently on her back, Ezra kissed her hair. You need to rest.
The saloon is full, she whispered.
Nathan feels you need a more restful atmosphere because of your condition and perhaps a better atmosphere for the baby after its born, Ezra said. Come with me, he added after another moment. He gently guided her out the back door and across the alley. As he led her up the couple of steps to the front porch of the building she had seen that morning, she squinted and looked at her surroundings.
Why are you showing me Casey and JDs house? Inez asked.
Well... Ezra stammered. Its not their house. I never said it was, he explained hastily as he set about lighting a lamp just inside the door. I simply inquired as to whether you were aware of their plans to marry.
Then whose house is it? Inez asked.
Its ours, if you like it, Ezra said. Inez stared at him as she looked around the house. If you dont like it, I can sell it. I imagine I can more than recoup my investment in the building and renovations.
It is beautiful, Inez said, but how am I to keep it and the saloon? Unless you believe I should not continue at the saloon after the baby comes.
Well see how it works out, Ezra said. I have been in negotiations with the new owners. I still hope to purchase the place again myself, in which case we shall both have a stake in the business. He watched her anxiously. But, we can discuss that later. Right now, I think you should take advantage of its distance from the saloon and get some rest. He led her to door of the larger of the two side rooms and opened it to reveal the feather bed from his room. You just settle yourself there for the night and Ill be by when the saloon is closed down.
Ezra guided her carefully into the room, sat her gently on the side of the bed and, after a moments hesitation helped her change into her nightgown. Settling her in the bed, he pulled a sheet up to her chin, gave her a quick kiss on the cheek and turned out the lantern before making his way across the dark room.
Ezra, Inez called in a pain-filled whisper. He turned back toward her. Thank you.
He smiled at her. Ill send Nathan by, he whispered and then left quietly.
Inez was barely aware of Ezras return in the early morning hours. He briefly considered making his bed in the loft for the night but was tired to the bone from the day and nights activities. The saloon had been busy and while hed been able to play some poker, he had spent many hours cleaning the place up for Inez this morning. When he had returned to the house, the feather bed was simply too tempting. When he had settled in for the night, he was somewhat surprised to feel Inez gravitate toward him and snuggle against him until he took her in his arms.
The next morning, Inez had already disentangled herself from Ezras embrace, dressed and was wandering about the house when Ezra pulled himself reluctantly from sleep. Noticing Inezs absence, he rose and watched from the doorway as she made her way around the room, testing the furniture, touching the curtains and admiring the decorations and furnishings.
I was able to acquire this property at a very reasonable price, and Josiah and Nathan and the others have all pitched in as a wedding gift of sorts to make it more conducive to family life, Ezra finally said, announcing his presence at the door.
Inez turned suddenly toward him and smiled shyly.
It is beautiful, she said. I have never had my own home before.
Ezra came out to join her and took her hand for a kiss.
To be quite honest, he said, neither have I. It shall be a novel experience for the both of us. Did you sleep well?
Oh, yes, Inez said. My headache is all gone. I was able to sleep quite well. I never realized how noisy the room above the saloon was. She impulsively kissed him on the cheek and then quickly bussed him on the lips. Thank you. She hurried back into the bedroom and Ezra, still stunned by her impromptu kiss, took a few minutes to recover before returning to the room himself.
Ezra and Inez fell quickly into a routine of tending the saloon and the town. Ezra divided his time between the poker tables and helping to clean up. Often he sent Inez home while he cleaned up after closing. One night, Chris slipped in the back door of the kitchen and watched Ezra lug in a large box of dirty beer mugs. When the man plunged his arms into soapy water, cursing softly as the water splashed onto his shirt, Chris chuckled.
What do you find so amusing, Mr. Larabee? Ezra asked.
Just find it interesting the things you do for someone who wouldnt know what love is , Chris said. Towns quiet tonight, he continued when Ezra scowled at him. Ill take your shift. You get some rest. With that, and another chuckle at the gambler, Chris slipped out as quietly as hed entered.
Within the hour, Ezra was finished with the closing duties of the saloon and made his way back to the house. Again, he contemplated sleeping in the loft, but the thought of the soft bed was too much to resist again and he carefully climbed in beside his wife.
He had hoped she would stay on her side of the bed that night as it had been sometime since hed enjoyed the companionship of a woman. He had done well in controlling himself around Inez, but there were some mornings when it took every ounce of control he could summon. As he drifted off to sleep this early morning, he was not surprised to feel Inez move closer to him. He tried to ignore her soft presence. When her hand found its way under his nightshirt to his chest and began to caress him, it became more difficult.
Inez? he whispered. Do you know what you are doing? Her hand stilled and she sighed and began to pull her hand back.
If you must ask, I suppose I dont, she replied quietly.
Ezra snatched her hand before she could take it away. He raised himself on one elbow and looked down at the woman in his bed.
I didnt say I wanted you to stop, he whispered. I just wanted to make sure you knew what you were doing, and to whom you were doing it.
Inez held his gaze in the soft light of the moon filtering through the half-closed curtain.
I know who lays beside me, Inez said.
Are you sure? Ezra asked again. Inez nodded and Ezra leaned down to kiss her, letting the emotions of the night take them both away.
Six of the seven peacekeepers gathered in the saloon on the first day of July to discuss plans for watching over the town during the planned Fourth of July festivities. A day of events had been scheduled, followed by a short fireworks show at dusk and a dance later that night. Just as they began to assign areas and times of watch, Buck breezed into the room and eased himself into a seat.
Bout time you got here, Chris said.
Just doing my civic duty, Buck replied.
Where you been? JD asked.
Helping Mrs. Richards, were you? Chris asked. Buck nodded with a big smile. As he was about to expound on his helpfulness, Chris redirected attention to the plans for the Fourth.
As the men went their own ways, Chris just looked at Buck and shook his head. One of these days, a husband is really going to catch you, you know.
Aw, Chris, Buck said. Old man Richards has been gone for three months. You know how you feel if you have to go without some loving for a while, well, a womans no different. Theys got needs, too.
At the bar, Ezras shoulders stiffened slightly at Bucks words, painting the memories of the past few weeks with Inez with a different outlook. Inez came through from the kitchen then and gave him her shy smile, the one that made him think she was thinking of their time together and his heart felt lighter.
Senor Buck. Senor Larabee, Inez said, can I bring you something else? Chris shook his head as Buck smiled widely at the lady.
Well, Inez darling, youre looking lovely today, Buck greeted. Ezras doing right by you, now, aint he? Cause if he aint, you just let ole Buck know, now. Buck leaned closer to Inez, but she stepped slightly back. She resisted coming too close to the man but did not seem as standoffish toward him as she had been in previous months.
He is a good husband, Inez said. Buck turned his attention back to Chris, missing the cold glare Ezra sent his way, but Chris didnt. Ezra followed Inez back to the kitchen, leaving the two old friends alone in the room.
Think you might want to keep your hands off Inez, Chris suggested quietly.
Buck glanced toward the kitchen and shrugged. Just talking, he said. No harm.
Shes Ezras wife, Chris reminded him.
Yeah, Buck said, a puzzled look coming over his face. Now that I never saw coming. He shrugged. Long as he keeps her happy.
Chris leveled a stern look at his friend. Im telling you to keep your hands off Inez, Buck.
Come on, Chris, I flirted with Sarah all the time.
You never looked at Sarah the way you look at Inez, Buck, Chris told him. If you had, I wouldve shot ya. Chris drained the last of his coffee. Besides, I knew I was the only man Sarah ever made love to. Somehow, I dont think Ezra has that comfort.
Sounds like you know something others might not, Buck said. Chris shrugged and left the building.
The town celebrated the Fourth of July with exuberance, and Inez and Ezra were kept busy in the saloon all afternoon and into the evening. As agreed, Ezra watched the saloon as part of his duties while remaining available to come if he was needed elsewhere. While gunshots were a familiar sound during the day, no one came asking for Ezras help. As dusk settled, Ezra insisted Inez step outside with him to see the few fireworks Buck and JD had managed to gather. Inez found herself leaning back in Ezras arms as they watched the short show of color and sound light up the sky.
Ezras hand rested on her stomach as they watched the lights. Others were gathered in the street but the couple was somewhat isolated, unwilling to venture far from the saloon and its till. Inezs hand joined her husbands and so both felt the movement of the child within.
Before either could comment on the moment, a shout went up from the street behind them, close to the general store.
Ezra turned to see three horses barreling down the street toward the crowd. He shuffled Inez back into the saloon and ordered her to take cover behind the bar. Ezra pulled his own guns and shouted at the riders to stop. He wasnt sure what had happened, but no matter what the three may or may not have done, riding as fast as they were toward a crowd of people was dangerous. He repeated his warning and was answered with a shot that embedded into the saloon wall behind him. Leaping sideways to cover, Ezra surveyed the situation. His attention was caught quickly by the two barrels behind which he hid. Moving quickly, Ezra pulled one barrel to its side and shoved it hard into the street and the path of the horses. The horses spied the dark object rolling into their dim path and lurched to the side, unseating one rider. The other two riders kept their seats and turned their horses down the alley.
Before he had to decide whether to follow the others or keep an eye on the one whod fallen in the street, Chris and Nathan appeared a few feet down, pushing through the edge of the crowd. Nathan stopped beside the fallen man and Chris and Ezra moved together down the alley. They saw the other two horses riding out of the town.
What happened? Chris asked.
Im not sure, Ezra said. I heard a shout to stop them. Considering the speed with which they were riding toward the crowd, I deemed it prudent to stop them first and then ascertain why they were in such a hurry.
Well never catch them, Chris said. Lets see whats going on and whether we need to track them down. Chris led the way back to the main street and found Nathan and their prisoner on the boardwalk in front of the saloon.
He say anything? Chris asked with a nod at the prisoner.
Nope, Nathan said, but she did. He pointed at Mrs. Potter, who was standing just inside the saloon doors with Inez. Seems these folks couldnt get into the bank so they thought theyd just help themselves to Mrs. Potters cash. He picked up a bag from the walk. Ezra managed to stop the one with the money.
Buck and JD appeared with Vin and Josiah at that point. Buck looked at the two ladies inside the saloon doors and immediately went to their sides. Inez looked pale and Mrs. Potter was shaking in the aftermath of the robbery.
I saw them as they left the store, Mrs. Potter said. Id just gone back in for some candy to give to the children and saw them leave. The box where I keep the cash for the day was on the floor, empty. She took a deep breath and walked up to Ezra. I cant thank you enough, Mr. Standish, for your help. They would have gotten away if you hadnt been here. She enveloped him in a hug.
Ezra accepted the praise and thanks graciously, and as the hug went on, looked for assistance from his friends in ending the embrace. Chris and Vin simply smirked. JD, Josiah and Nathan tried to keep from laughing. Ezra would have wondered how to end the hug graciously if he hadnt looked up to see Buck standing beside Inez with his arm wrapped familiarly around her shoulders. He was smiling, clearly pleased with the situation and even Inez was smiling happily.
Gloria Potter felt Ezras body stiffen suddenly and she backed away, somewhat embarrassed herself by her actions. Ezra, eyes coldly watching Buck and Inez, managed to reassure her graciously, Simply doing my job, Mrs. Potter. Ezra bowed slightly and forced himself to look at her briefly.
Whoa, Buck suddenly said, and Ezras eyes snapped back to see Inez fainting into Bucks arms. Ezra pushed himself rudely past the others to the stricken woman as Buck swung her into his arms.
Ill take her, Ezra said.
I got her, Buck said, turning to look at Nathan.
Ezra reached out to take her from the larger man. She is MY wife, Mr. Wilmington, Ezra snapped. I will see her to her room where Mr. Jackson can examine her.
Before the discussion escalated, Inez opened her eyes.
Put me down, she whispered harshly. Buck complied but sat her on a nearby chair. Ezra dropped to his knee in front of her and took her hand.
Are you all right? he asked quietly.
She nodded, even as Nathan came to stand beside her. He took her pulse, felt her face for fever and rested his hand on her stomach to check the baby.
She looked anxiously at the healer.
The baby? she whispered.
I think its fine, Nathan said. When was the last time you ate something?
Just a couple of hours ago, Ezra said. Inez looked down guiltily.
Noon, she whispered.
Noon? Ezra and Nathan said together.
I distinctly remember sitting you down with a meal in the kitchen not two hours ago, Ezra said.
Senors Vin and JD came by and needed something, she said. I meant to refill my plate, but we got so busy I didnt have time.
Vin looked away hastily.
You didnt tell us that was your food! JD said from the doorway where he had a firm grip on the prisoner. What baby? he asked immediately.
Inez is with child, Ezra said. We are expecting a baby in a few months.
Wow! JD exclaimed. Thats great! Congratulations!
JD, why dont you and Buck get your prisoner over to the jail, Chris suggested. The leader gave Buck a slight push to start him on his way behind the young sheriff. JDs excited voice drifted back through the doors.
Hey, Buck, he said, at least no ones claiming youre the father this time.
Any response Buck made was unheard.
Ezra and Inez exchanged embarrassed glances.
She needs to eat and rest, Nathan pronounced.
I shall see to it, Ezra said, aiding Inez to her feet and guiding her toward the back to their home. He could feel the gazes of Chris and Vin on them as they left.
Ezra settled Inez in bed with a sandwich and glass of water and then returned to the saloon. Business was slow as most people were at the dance and Ezra closed early. When the floor had been swept and all the little things done, he took one shot glass and one bottle and settled himself at his table on the platform. He stared at the empty saloon and replayed all the times he had seen Buck and Inez flirt in the past three years. He tried to hang on to the times she rebuffed the ladies man soundly, but the sight of her smiling with Bucks arm around her and of her swept up in Bucks arms assaulted him repeatedly.
For the first time, Ezra wondered how he would manage to raise another mans child. Its not as if it were a strangers child, or as if the father was dead or uninterested. This father simply didnt know.
If he knew... Ezra wondered. If he knew, what would he do? Would he deny the accusation as he had with Lucy? Would he run from any sense of commitment, or would he embrace it, embrace Inez? He had been willing to explore a relationship with Lucy at one point. He had actually asked the Governors assistant Louisa to marry him. Would he have found the fortitude to be faithful to Inez as she said she wanted?
Ezra drank shot after shot of whiskey, looking for answers he suspected he didnt really want to find, wondering why the questions were even bothering him. It wasnt like he was in love with Inez, after all, he told himself. He was simply helping out a friend until a more permanent solution could be found. Why was he now facing these questions? What was the right thing to do?
Ezra looked up as someone stopped at the window and breathed a sigh of relief when the person continued on. His relief was short-lived, however, as he heard someone enter the kitchen door. He released his gun from its holster at his hip and laid it carefully on the table, pointed toward the kitchen entrance. He relaxed only when he recognized Chris Larabees familiar shape in the doorway.
Chris made his way carefully through the dark room and pulled a chair up to the table. He settled across from Ezra.
Mr. Larabee, Ezra acknowledged. Would you care to join me in a drink? Chris declined with a shake of his head. Have the revelers left our fair city?
Yep, Chris said, everythings pretty quiet. Hows Inez?
She is resting.
Why arent you?
Ezra shrugged and studied the half-full shot glass before him. Chris waited silently.
If a woman were going to have your child, would you want to know? Ezra asked.
Chris leaned forward to rest his arms on the table. He took the nearly empty bottle and rolled it between his hands.
I guess that depends, he finally said.
On what, pray tell.
On a lot of things. If I loved her. If she was married or not. If her husband was a good man whod take care of her and the baby. If she loved her husband.... Lots of things. He watched Ezra. If she wanted me to know, he added. He leaned back. But were not talking about me.
No, Ezra said.
Why didnt she tell Buck? Chris asked.
She said she was afraid of how he would react and that she couldnt bear the thought of him being unfaithful to her if he did marry her.
Chris chuckled at the idea of a faithful Buck. Hed try, and hed probably fail, Chris acknowledged. He thought back to a conversation he and Buck had had when Buck, JD and Ezra had returned from their trip a few months back. Does she expect you to be faithful? he asked.
Ezra shrugged. No, but she didnt marry me because she loved me.
But you have been?
Circumstances have dictated fidelity, Ezra pointed out.
Thats not the way I heard it, Chris said. Ezra looked up at him in question. Buck said you had ample opportunity in Riverton.
And I had considered it until his timely comments, and JDs presence. Ezra looked down again. I just wonder how he would react if he knew the child was his.
Buck can count, Chris said. If he wants to know, hell ask.
Chris studied the gambler for a long moment. What are you afraid of?
That he will realize what an opportunity he is missing and insist on being part of the childs life, or Inez.... And that Inez will decide she would rather be with the father of her child.
Chris put the stopper back in the bottle and rose from the table. With his free hand, he grabbed Ezra by the elbow and lifted him to his feet. Guiding the gambler through the maze of chairs and tables, Chris led him out the back door and to the front porch of the little house.
Inez knows a good thing when she sees it, Chris said. And shes not stupid enough to let it go. He pushed the other man toward the door. Get some rest. Chris returned to the back door of the saloon and locked up. He strode off down the alley, swinging the empty bottle at his side. When he disappeared from view, Ezra walked inside the house and eased into the bed beside Inez. Without waking, she turned toward him and curled into his side.
Ezra smiled and slowly returned his gun to its shoulder holster and replaced the little derringer up his sleeve. He nudged the downed outlaw with a cautious toe after a moment and decided the man was well and truly out for the count. Now, Ezra turned to see what assistance he could give the others. The sounds of gunfire had dwindled to just a shot or two every few minutes so Ezra sauntered back up the alleyway. He was near the mouth of the alley when he heard Buck cry out in pain from around the corner. Ezra sprinted to the corner and cautiously looked around the building. Ezra was shocked to see Buck on the ground holding his hand to a bloody arm and looking up at his would-be killer. A quick glance at the street saw the other peacekeepers otherwise occupied. The outlaw was taking pleasure in Bucks vulnerability and enjoying the sense of power. With deliberate slowness, the scraggly, dirty outlaw pointed his weapon at Bucks head.
Im going enjoy this, the man snarled.
I think you should reconsider your course of action, Ezra advised, stepping out of the safety of the alley. The armed man looked up to see Ezra walking slowly down the street, gun trained steadily on the outlaws head. Buck turned his head to look back at his savior. Ezra grew concerned when Buck suddenly tried to get to his gun and the gunman smiled. Ezra heard a shot but resisted turning around. He did release a sigh of relief when Buck relaxed and the gunman frowned and dropped his weapon.
Thanks, Buck said, but you cut it kinda close there, didnt ya, Pard?
Yes, well, Ezra said, I had company of my own to dispatch.
Ezra was startled to be suddenly spun around. Before he could engage the derringer and shoot whoever had accosted him, he recognized the fiery eyes of his wife. Too late, he saw her hand rise and then felt the sting of her open hand against his cheek. His head snapped to the side from the force of the blow, and he caught a brief glimpse of Buck trying to contain his amusement as Inez began a minute-long tirade in Spanish. She whipped off her scarf and wrapped it around Bucks bleeding arm, but her tirade at Ezra continued. Just as he was about to ask her exactly what was wrong, she switched to English.
How dare you! Inez shouted, spinning on her toes and stalking back to the saloon.
Wow, the prisoner said as the enraged woman left the three men in her wake. Ezra stood stock still as amazement, embarrassment and pain flitted across his face before he managed to control his expression.
Yes, well Ezra said again. I suppose in the future, I should act more swiftly. Nathan and JD came up as Inez stalked away. Down the street, Ezra could see Chris and Vin standing near another fallen gang member. Vin raised his mares leg in a salute to Ezra then he and Chris started to drag the man away.
Buck laughed. Hell, Ez, I think next time you just better lay low or Inez will finish the job. Shaking his head and laughing, Buck grabbed one of the prisoners arms and started him on his way to the jailhouse. JD took over when Nathan stopped Buck with a hand to his chest.
Let me see that, Nathan said. You just about got shot in the back yourself, Ezra, Nathan added. Vin got that fella just before he took you out. Nathan nodded to the man Vin and Chris were carrying to the undertaker.
Yes, well, Mr. Tanner has always had impeccable timing. If youll excuse me, Gentlemen. He walked off toward the saloon.
By the time Ezra and Inez began to close down the saloon later that night, her anger had cooled considerably. Ezra stacked the chairs while Inez cleaned the bar. Out of a recently established habit, Ezra began putting out the lamps around the room while Inez finished last minute clean-up at the bar. He waited for her at the last lamp at the foot of the stairs. When she joined him, she reached up to extinguish the final light. Moonlight filtered through the dusty windows to offer weak light.
Ezra kissed her hand, then turned toward the stairs.
Senor? Inez asked quietly. Where are you going?
I thought Id stay in my room this evening.
But your bed is at the house, Inez pointed out.
I believe you are more deserving of its soft comforts than I am, Ezra said, nodding at the noticeable bulge of her stomach.
But what comfort is a feather mattress without arms to hold me? Inez whispered.
Im sure the arms you seek will find the way back to you, Ezra promised with a sad smile.
What? Ezra asked.
When will you come to the house?
Ezra looked at the woman he had married, and with whom he had to admit after this afternoons events, that he perhaps even loved, in confusion.
I confess I am somewhat confused at the moment, Ezra said.
Are you not angry with me because I nearly let Buck be killed this afternoon?
Inez sighed in frustration and moved closer to her exasperating man. I am angry because you nearly got yourself killed, Inez said.
I have an obligation, Ezra said.
I know the others depend on you.
I have an obligation to you, Ezra explained. I find myself more interested in making this a safe town for you and the child than for any feeling of camaraderie with these other gentlemen--a term I use loosely, by the way.
I know, Inez repeated softly. I am proud of you for that. I have watched you do many dangerous and brave things these last three years. I only ask that perhaps you put that devious mind to work at thinking up safer solutions.
I suppose I could try to do that.
She moved closer still to him and rested her hand over his where it rested on the banister.
Your wife is very tired, Senor Standish, she said. Do you think you could escort her home?
Ezra grinned at her. I believe I could accomplish that mission with a minimum of danger to any of us. He stepped down the one step and slipped his free hand beneath her chin, tilting it as he leaned forward to kiss her gently on the lips. Ezra looked directly into her eyes. Shall we, Mrs. Standish?
Inez smiled back at him and leaned into him as he slipped his arm around her shoulders. They walked comfortably back to the house. Before he closed the door, Ezra looked across the alleyway and nodded his head to Chris.
Chris nodded back but couldnt suppress a smile after the door closed.
Ezra smiled at his fellow poker players and added a glance outside the doors as well, as he waited for his chief opponent to make his wager. He noticed JD slouched across the street in the front of the jail enjoying the cooler weather that had swept into the area yesterday. Summer heat was finally leaving them to bring the cooler temperatures of fall. He could feel the change in his own mood and definitely noticed the change in Inezs mood. The pregnant woman was much more pleasant today than she had been for the past couple of weeks. Of course, if he were carrying that extra weight with the added discomfort of a constantly moving presence inside him, he doubted he would be as civil as she had been. Her condition had finally encouraged them to take their physical relationship back to the stage it had enjoyed the first couple of months of their marriage and while Ezra enjoyed holding Inez, he couldnt deny he looked forward to the birth of the child.
As the betting moved around the table, Ezra saw the stage pass by. His players hurried to finish the hand, much to Ezras delight as he smiled, thanked them for the game and their money and watched at least two of them hurry to catch their ride out on the stage. Leaning back happily in his chair, Ezra sorted his winnings. He glanced out the door, contemplating going to see who had turned up on the stage today, but opted instead to watch his surroundings and count his money.
Doing another visual sweep of the room and what he could see of the street through the doors, Ezra was surprised to see JD suddenly sit up and practically jump from his seat into the street. Ezra stuffed his winnings in his vest pockets and quickly crossed to the saloons doors. He could hear JD speaking rapidly even before he reached the batwing doors.
It sure is a nice surprise to see you here, JD was saying. I suppose you came because of the wedding and the baby and all, he said.
Ezras mind sifted through the possible meanings of JDs words. JD and Casey were planning to wed next week so the visitor could be for their wedding, but to Ezras knowledge, the couple wasnt expecting a child. In fact, the only people he could think of in town expecting a child soon were he and Inez.
Oh, Lord, Ezra whispered as he reached the swinging doors and came face to face with Maude. Ignoring JDs earnestly smiling face behind the woman, Ezra pasted a smile on his face.
Mother, he greeted the blonde woman even as he blocked her entrance into the saloon.
Ezra, darling, she greeted. Im surprised you werent at the stage to see who arrived. There were two perfectly charming gentlemen on the stage that we simply must meet. I believe they are escorting their daughter and sister to San Francisco. I dont suppose youd be interested in a little trip to California?
I dont believe so, Ezra said.
I dont think Inez would like that. What with the baby coming and all, JD added.
Maudes eyebrows rose alarmingly before she turned to JD with a smile. Inez is expecting? she asked.
JDs mouth hung open as he watched Ezra wince behind his mothers back. Well, yeah, JD stuttered. I thought Ezra would have told you.
Told me what? Maude asked, turning back to her son. And why dont you stand aside so I can go in, Son?
Im sure my letter is still trying to catch up with you, Ezra said, stepping hastily to join Maude and JD outside. Let me escort you to your hotel room, Mother. Ezra took her by the elbow and turned her across the street toward the hotel.
Id rather have a drink to wash this dust from my mouth, Maude said, trying discreetly to loosen her arm from Ezras grip and surprised by his firm hold.
Well have a drink in your room, Ezra suggested keeping on the move.
Maude turned to look behind her and saw Inez come to stand just outside the saloon doors. She was surprised at the rotund figure and almost didnt recognize the woman. Turning back to watch her step across the dusty street and up the sidewalk steps, Maudes attention was slightly diverted as she concentrated on keeping her feet. As Ezra ushered her through the hotel doors, she glanced back to catch a profile of Inez turning back toward the saloon and recognized the Mexicans condition. She narrowed her eyes at her son briefly before turning a charming smile on the hotels desk clerk and garnering herself the nicest room in the building.
What is the meaning of this? Maude demanded as soon as she and Ezra were safely alone in the room.
Of what? Ezra asked, pouring a drink for the two of them from his flask.
Of all this! Maude snapped, waving her arms. That rude greeting. Hustling me across the street. A baby! That womans condition!
What woman? Ezra asked, moving to look out the window to the saloon across the street.
That woman I hired, Maude said. I saw her. Shes gone and got herself with child, I see. Truthfully, I expected more of her. Maude frowned. But what has gotten into you. What was that young man blathering on about?
Ah, yes, Ezra said. So you noticed Inez is expecting a child? He sat on the settee and studied the liquid in his glass.
Yes. What makes your sheriff think Id care about that baby. I sold that saloon ages ago.
Well, it could be he thinks youre interested because it will be your grandchild, Ezra said, taking a sip of his drink. But then, JD has never been good at reading people.
Maude sat suddenly on the bed. My grandchild? she whispered. Ezra! I know I taught you better than that! Whatever makes him think that child is yours?
Well, it could be because Inez and I are married.
Married! Maude stood to pace. Really, Ezra. I cant believe it. Surely its a joke of some kind.
Why would it be a joke? Ezra asked bitterly.
Ezra, darling, Maude chided. You know better than getting a woman pregnant so youd have to marry her...
I have never taken advantage of a woman in that way in my life, Mother, Ezra snapped. I wont start now.
Still, Maude continued, if you were going to compromise a woman in such a manner, the least you would do is make sure it was some one with influence. That Travis woman, perhaps. Her father would at least wield some influence. What were you thinking?
What would you care? Ezra whispered, studying the drink in his hand
Maude ignored her sons comments, running various ideas through her mind, trying to fathom this sudden change in his life. You are a man of the world, Ezra. Or you should be. She moved to stand over him. Ezra shook his head and stood, returning to the window. Maude followed. Ezra, she said, grasping his arm tightly. You have so much potential, baby boy. I hate to see you wasting your talents in this dusty backwater town. Hell, theres not enough water here for it to be called backwater. Its just dirty streets and dirty people. How can you even think about letting this happen? She went back to sit in the chair. How do you know the child is even yours? she asked. You know as well as I do what goes on in saloons. A common barmaid? Really!
Ezra emptied his glass and slammed it forcefully on the dresser.
Dont you ever let me hear you say anything like that again, Ezra demanded. Inez is my wife. I have agreed to be responsible for her and the child. She and I both knew what we were doing when we married.
The childs not even yours, is it? Maude walked away to sit again on the bed. Dont tell me you have tied yourself down simply for a barmaids honor.
Why would you think Im tied down, Ezra hissed, leaning into his mothers face. You of all people know how easily a person can disappear. New location, new name, new hair color. Presto! A new person is born. A new life, a clean slate. He stepped back and drew a deep breath. Staring down at the shocked woman on the bed, he spoke softly. Inez has been only kind to me since I have known her. You will not embarrass her in any way. While you are in this town, in the presence of her friends and acquaintances, you will be the very epitome of the loving and proper mother-in-law. If this particular act causes you distress or you feel you cannot accomplish even the appearance of politeness, perhaps you should plan to leave on the next stage out. Ezra put his hat firmly on his head and with a curt, Mother, let himself out of the room.
He bypassed the saloon and instead went directly to their home. He was surprised to find Inez waiting for him there .
Whos minding the store? he asked, hanging his hat on the rack by the door.
Peter. It was not busy. Inez watched him pace stiffly around the room. Your mother knows?
She knows of the marriage and the child, yes, Ezra said.
Later that day, the seven peacekeepers had been loaned out to a nearby farmer by Judge Travis to catch whoever was tearing up the familys fields. Two days later, Inez came home after closing the saloon to find Maude waiting on the front porch. Politely, despite the late hour, Inez invited her mother-in-law inside. Maude had kept busy with poker games in her sons absence and virtually ignored her new daughter-in-law.
Ezra has not yet returned? Inez asked as she lit a lamp.
No, Maude said, glancing around the little home and smiling slightly. She sat in one of the chairs while Inez put on a pot of coffee for her guest.
Is there something I can do for you, Senora Standish? Inez finally asked to break the silence.
Maude considered the woman. You can tell me why you felt Ezra was worth trapping into a marriage, she said. Surely there were much more lucrative prospects out there. I believe several of the prominent ranchers in the area are unmarried.
Inez narrowed her dark eyes at the woman seated across from her.
I did not trap him into anything, Inez said. It was his idea and his offer. I would never trap a man into marriage. He and I both understand what we want. Inez looked down.
Actually, I dont understand why you felt the need to marry at all, Maude said. You are an intelligent, resourceful young woman. You could have simply moved to another location and told everyone your husband had died tragically. If you find the right people, theyll fall all over themselves to make your burden bearable. Then you could move on without worrying about what your husband wanted. Now you are little more than his property. Everything you own belongs to him. It is not a good situation.
I like it here, Inez said. I have friends. I have a good job. I would like my child to live and grow up here.
But Ezra? Maude asked. You cant even be sure hell come back. You know he is just as likely to leave one day as he is to come back? Maude said. Its very easy to simply disappear in this country. You cant trust him.
Ezra has been a very good husband, Inez said. Whatever happens, I do not believe he will leave me in distress.
But why Ezra? Maude asked again. She studied the young woman across from her. Dont tell me you fell in love? she asked, disbelief evident in her tone.
What brought us together is none of your concern, Mother, Ezra said from the door. Neither woman had heard his approach. The marriage is a fact. As I told you when you first arrived, you can accept it or leave. He stepped behind his mothers chair. In fact, leaving is an excellent idea right now. It is late. Inez and I need our rest. He helped his mother rise and saw her to her hotel.
Inez was sitting on the small settee when he returned. He sat beside her and took her hand.
She is not pleased, Inez said.
As Im sure you remember, Mother is seldom pleased with my life. He kissed her hand. But, he went on, it is my life.... our life. Not hers.
Inez felt tears fill her eyes and looked down to catch her breath. Still speechless, she could do nothing except lean into her husbands arms and relish the feel of them wrapping around her. They shared the embrace for several minutes before rising to go to their bed.
Ezra took his time saddling his horse in the livery and rode very nonchalantly out of town. As he crested a rise, he increased the horses pace until his spied Nathan in the distance. Ezra brought his horse to a stop beside the road in the shade of a cluster of rocks and scrub brush and waited for Nathan. As the town healer approached, Ezra fell into step with him.
Something I can do for you? Nathan finally asked after they had ridden a few moments in silence.
Not really. I was just out for a ride and noticed your approach. I thought you might like some company. Ezra scanned the surrounding country.
Just thought itd be a nice day for a ride, huh? Nathan asked. Ezra nodded. They rode in silence for several more moments until Ezra finally broke the silence.
I once spent several weeks with an uncle on his horse ranch, Ezra said. The time he worried most about his mares was as they were about to give birth and as they gave birth. He was quite the calm man until his mares approached their foaling date.
Nathan wondered for a moment at this story of Ezras childhood then recognized the question for what it was.
Birthing can be a dangerous thing, Nathan agreed, for woman or beast. Most of the time it turns out just fine for both. Hows Inez feeling?
Inez? Ezra asked. Shes feeling fine, Ezra reported with a smile. Why would you ask? He turned to face the towns healer. Have you spoken with her? Has she had cause to visit you?
Nathan laughed. No, Ezra, Nathan said. She hasnt said anything to me. Just stop worrying, will you? Shell be fine.
Of course she will, Ezra agreed. I hope I didnt give the impression I was worried. Im not. Really. Im not at all worried.
Yeah, Nathan said. We can all tell. He kicked his horse to a faster pace as they came to the outskirts of town and trotted down the street to the livery and his clinic. Ezra stopped his own mount to watch, confusion evident on his face. Shaking his head he finally headed his own steed for the livery and shortly returned to the saloon.
Ezra found himself called away on duty again later that month and as he returned to Four Corners he happened upon an estate auction. Among the items was a small painting of a Mexican woman, surrounded by a golden aura and standing on the shoulders of a child. Thinking Inez might like something of her native land, Ezra purchased the small painting as a Christmas present.
Novembers weather was surprisingly mild and Four Corners residents enjoyed the delay of winters on-slaught. Inez particularly welcomed the mild conditions as she spent more time lounging on the porch of the Standish home than she did inside the saloon. Ezra had all but taken over running the place as her pregnancy had progressed. She sat now in the coming night and listened to the sounds increase from the establishment. She should get up and fix herself something to eat, she supposed, but she was rather tired at the moment. Still, she decided, it would be best to clean up a bit before going to bed. Ezra was likely to be very late tonight.
She stood and was surprised by the water that rushed down her legs. As she stood, shocked and confused by the occurrence, Mary Travis and her son Billy walked through the little gate and toward the front porch.
Inez? Mary called quietly as the woman stood stock-still on the porch. Are you all right?
I do not know, Inez said.
Marys experienced eye quickly took in the situation and she sent Billy to find Nathan. Mary helped Inez into the house, but Inez balked at getting onto the featherbed. Only when Mary had swathed the feather mattress in every available quilt and blanket did Inez agree to settle on it.
Billy found Nathan at the jail, playing checkers with Josiah. Nathan sent Billy searching for Chris who was patrolling the town. Chris, in turn, took Billy with him when he headed for the saloon to get Ezra home.
Many, many hours later, as the sun began to crest over the eastern horizon, Ezra stood yet again to pace the confines of his living room. Chris and Vin sat on the porch awaiting news and watching the town. JD sat on the couch next to a snoring Josiah while Buck sat in the chair across from them. Skirting the various legs and bodies that were strewn about his home, Ezra finally stepped out onto the front porch. He frowned as he looked back at the closed door.
Why is it, the gambler asked, that I have the right to be present at almost any place I choose to be present, but I am not allowed to witness the birth of my child? Annoyed, Ezra slumped down to sit on the top step. He stared at the growing light of the sunrise for several silent moments as no one answered his question.
Ezra stood to pace the porch again before stopping beside Chris slouched figure. How on earth did you survive your sons birth? Ezra finally asked Chris.
Chris didnt get the chance to answer as Buck chuckled from the doorway.
He missed the whole thing, Buck laughed. When Chris frowned and rolled his eyes, Buck went on with the story. Hed just bought a stallion a couple of weeks before for his herd. The darned thing got out, with a little help, and we took off to track it down. Stopped by the neighbors to ask the missus there to check on Sarah and then took off. It took a day or two longer than wed planned. When we got back to his place, Sarah was sitting on the front porch feeding Adam. Chris was about floored. Seems the neighbor stopped by that afternoon and just before she left for the day, Sarah went into labor.
Chris pulled his hat lower over his face and slumped further into his chair.
Sarah was none too happy with the old boy, Buck laughed. When Buck continued to chuckle, Chris stood and walked inside. Buck watched Chris walk inside, and turned back to face Ezra. Ezra took a seat next to Vin, keeping the other man between him and Buck.
Vin rose slowly and stretched. Im going to take a turn around town, he said. He gave Ezra a friendly and reassuring pat on the back before he left.
Ezra watched Buck as Vin walked away and became uncomfortably aware that he was alone with the father of Inezs child for the first time in several months. He had studiously avoided Bucks company since August, telling himself he was completely at ease with the man but in all truth still ashamed of the secret he and Inez shared. As long as he wasnt faced with only Bucks company, Ezra found it easy to think of the child as his. It was only when the two men were alone that Ezra became uncomfortable. He stood and walked down the steps. He took a deep breath of the early morning air and turned to face his friend.
Buck, Ezra began quietly. I feel theres something you should know.
Buck looked up at him and squinted his eyes. With a sad smile, he nodded at his friend. Reckon I know all I need to know, Ezra, Buck told him.
But theres something.... Ezra began, but the sound of a childs cry from within stopped his words and nearly stopped his heart. Ezra stumbled as he tried to go up the stairs and only Bucks quick hands saved him from sprawling.
Think its time to go in, Buck said, assisting the other man to the door with a firm hand on his arm. As they entered the main room, Nathan appeared at the bedroom door, smiling widely.
Its a girl, he announced.
Ezra smiled widely and accepted the congratulations of his friends and co-workers. He stared at the door of the bedroom as if afraid to enter. Buck slapped him on the back and propelled him toward the threshold.
Ezra stared up at the man as they paused at the doorway. Get in there and see your baby, Ezra, Buck whispered. His lip quirked up in another half-smile and he gave a gentle push to send the man on his way. As Ezra walked in, Mary Travis walked out, smiling as she closed the door to give the new family some privacy.
Ezra approached the bed slowly. Inez smiled wearily at him and pulled back the blanket from the child nestled at her breast. Dark hair spiked out from the head and Ezra hesitantly reached to stroke the childs face.
Shes beautiful, Inez whispered.
So are you, Ezra replied, kissing her on the forehead. He settled gingerly beside her. Are you all right? Inez nodded. What shall we name her?
Anita has always been a favorite of mine. What name do you like?
Inez has become particularly dear to me as of late.
Inez beamed at him. That might get confusing. Unless we call her Anita Inez.
Whatever youd like as long as I get to name the boys.
As many as you want.
Ezra smiled and kissed her gently before turning back to study the child.
Several minutes later, when the child was finished eating and Inez had fallen asleep, Ezra carefully carried the new baby out to the main room where his friends waited. JD watched nervously as Casey, who had come by with Vin just after Ezra had gone in to see Inez, cooed over the tiny bundle. Only Chris summoned the courage to hold the infant but the others crowded in close. Chris held the little girl for several long moments until he hurriedly gave the child back to Ezra and with a polite nod, left the house. Buck watched him go and shook his head at Mary when she glanced sadly after the gunslinger. Before long, Ezra was yawning, and everyone else took their leave as well. Buck was the last to go.
Buck paused at the door as Ezra headed back to the bedroom.
Ezra, he called quietly. You got a good family here. A good start. Im glad for ya. All of ya.
Thank you, Ezra said as the big man left the house.
Winter finally hit Four Corners with a vengeance and the little town was snowbound most of the month of December. Ezra didnt seem to notice. He delighted in fatherhood and was as likely to be home with Anita while Inez worked at the saloon as the other way around.
The new family spent a happy Christmas in their home. Inez carefully read the story of Jesus and Mary to little Anita, and she told Ezra about the traditions of her people. Ezra presented his gifts to Inez on Christmas morning. He first pulled out the little painting he had picked up two months before thinking it would be funny to make her think that was the only present he had gotten her.
He was surprised by the reception. Watching her trace the image on the canvass lovingly, Ezra realized he could have taken back the necklace he had purchased and she would never have cared. It was almost hard to get her attention long enough to give her the necklace as it was. She was enraptured with the little painting. He was surprised by the story that went with it.
The picture, she had told him, was a copy of one that was famous in Mexico. Many years ago, a poor farmer had seen a lady on a hilltop in December and she had sent him to the bishop with a message. When the bishop failed to believe the poor mans story, the lady had appeared to him again and sent him back with a cloak full of roses he had picked from the hillside. When the roses were released from the farmers cloak, the image of the woman he had seen was left behind on the cloak. The woman was believed to be the Mother of God and she was much beloved by the people of Mexico.
She had appreciated the necklace, as much as he had appreciated the new vest she had purchased for him. That morning as they had listened to someone ring in Christmas Day, she had whispered prayers he didnt recognize but listened to attentively. When she had finished she had admitted to missing attending Mass this time of year more than any other.
The last week of the year was the first time in three weeks the town was able to get a mail delivery and Ezra contented himself reading newspapers. One article in particular caught his eye as he watched Inez attend to Anita. When she had put the child down to sleep, Ezra had caught her hand and pulled her into his lap.
Inez, he said, looking straight into her dark eyes. She waited and he swallowed nervously. Marys paper has made mention of a traveling priest who comes to the area every few months. He smiled as he watched a light spark in her eyes. I thought perhaps we could visit him when he comes through and have our marriage validated by the Church. Perhaps have Anita baptized.
She searched his face for long moments before she spoke softly.
Senor, she whispered, as long as our marriage is not recognized by the church, I will be able to marry in the church after you decide to leave. If we are married by the church, you and I will be bound as long as we live. She ducked her face and looked away.
Ezra raised her face to look directly into her eyes. I know, he said. I know what I am proposing. Is it something you want?
Her arms flew around his neck and she whispered quietly in his ear. Oh, yes, Ezra. It is all I want.